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Reviews of Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum, Third Edition

“Stanley Burstein has researched, compiled, and translated with commentary the most significant Greek and Roman sources concerning Black Africa. The result is a fascinating book about the people of the southern part of the Nile Valley, the gold mines of Nubia, the Hellenistic city of Meroë, capital of the Ethiopian Empire of Kush with its own highly developed culture (300 BC to 300 AD). This book is a masterpiece of scholarship and historical research.”

Midwest Book Review

“Kush (Nubia) and Axum have received less attention from ancient historians than the other African civilizations with whom the Greeks and Romans came into contact (and conflict). This source book of ancient texts in English translation will help students become better aware of how the so-called Aethiopians who lived in Northeast Africa differed from their better-known neighbors, the Egyptians. The twenty-six texts collected here are all readily accessible to students with a basic knowledge of ancient Egyptian, Greek, or Roman civilization. … Each text is presented with a brief introduction setting it into its historical context, and additional essential information is provided in endnotes, where the names of the authors and their dates are given. … There is a useful select bibliography.”

Classical World

“Students of the early history of Africa include romantics who fill their charts of the African past with tales of Sheba and Ophir, of strange Phoenicians building cities in Rhodesia, and mysterious peoples from the north who came and stayed but altogether vanished, enthusiasts such as Emil Torday, who dated the chronology of the kings of Congo by the solar eclipse of 1680, and imperialists who believe that ancient Africa was an island of primitive savagery in a world of ever-increasing enlightenment and progress.[[l]] Burstein, an ancient historian from Los Angeles with an established publication record in the field of Greek relations with north-east Africa, [[2]] does not belong to any of these categories; instead he has made the evidence for the kingdoms of Kush and Axum available in readable translations so that English readers can discover for themselves the fragmentary but growing body of source material for these impressive civilizations.

“Information about this region in antiquity is tenuous, despite the fact that its monarchs conquered Egypt (Kush between 712-664 BC) and troubled Rome (Axum in AD 298); Burstein’s selection of twenty-seven short texts covers a chronological span of approximately one thousand years and encompasses the historical periods of Egyptian and Greek explorations to the south beginning in the third millennium BC (pp. 23-52), Roman imperial hegemony in the first and second centuries (pp. 55-75), Axumite regional supremacy in the third century (pp. 79-10), and the Christianization of Nubia up to the end of the sixth century (pp. 103-31). Nevertheless, the present collection represents a significant increase in the range of texts included in it by comparison with what was previously available in various English translations and conveniently gathers rather inaccessible material together under one cover. The book has the added benefit of being produced by an experienced editor with a good knowledge of the Greek sources.[[3]] There are, inevitably, still omissions; I would, for instance, have liked to have seen the story of the apostle Philip’s conversion of the Ethiopian ambassador (Acts 18.27-40) included. There are also the references to the Blemmyes and Axumites in Vopiscus’ life of Aurelian (33.4), paralleled in Heliodorus’ fiction, the Ethiopian Story (10.27.1), though generally the latter should not be taken as a significant historical source for Axumite history. Other collections feature texts not included by Burstein, such as the correspondence between the emperor Constantius and Ezana (Migne PG 25 coll. 636f.).[[4]] There appears to be a need for greater coordination of scholarship relating to the compilation of source material for the history of this region in antiquity.

“Interest in cultural relations between the Mediterranean and Africa has increased dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century.[[5]] This has been due not only to the heat generated by the debate over Bernal’s Black Athena, but also to progress in the archaeology and historiography of the hinterland of the horn of Africa, despite the instability of the area in modern times.[[6]] Indeed, in his valuable introduction (pp. 3-21), Burstein regards the reconstruction of the history of Kush as ‘one of the triumphs of twentieth century historiography’ (p. 5). It is no surprise that the civilizations of the Nile and its tributaries should be the main focus of this revival. Not only did this river provide the Mediterranean peoples with economic access to central Africa (and vice versa), otherwise prevented by the Sahara desert, but it is also situated adjacent to the Red Sea, the gateway to the Indian Ocean and the trade routes to the east. Consequently, it is not entirely unexpected, although admittedly rather incongruous, to find a bronze head of Augustus looted from Meroe in 25 BC from the same region as later Indian and even Chinese artefacts.[[7]] Archaeology is not the concern of this book but the rulers of Axum from the second to the fourth centuries were clearly aware of the importance of the region for international trade, as Ezana’s inscription recording the punishment of a tribe that had raided a merchant caravan (pp. 89f.) aptly illustrates.

“This collection provides many insights into the culture of Kush and Axum. The complexity of relations between the Roman authorities in Egypt and their southern neighbours is neatly illustrated by the fragment of Priscus’ account of the treaty (c. 453 AD) between Maximinus, the Roman governor of the Thebaid, and the Blemmyes and Nobatai, allowing them access to the temple of Isis and its statue of the goddess in accordance with the ancient law (pp. 106f.). The hymn to the Nubian sun god, Mandulis, by Paccius Maximus, a Roman soldier of Nubian descent, uses Greek poetic convention in referring to Calliope, Pythian oracles, and the Muses (pp. 66-68). The reader will be reminded of the Greek education of the Axumite king, Zoscales, in the Periplus Mans Erythraei (5): ‘miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature’ (p. 81). Local knowledge of Greek is also attested by the many inscriptions in the region that use the Greek alphabet rather than any of the indigenous writing systems. Agatharchides’ description of the harsh conditions in the Nubian gold mines (pp. 31-36) and the contract for the sale of a twelve year-old Nubian slave girl to enable Isidora ‘to acquire, to possess, to use her and, with God willing, her children’ are shocking reminders of the iniquitous and long-standing exploitation of slaves in ancient north-east Africa. The trade in human beings from Nubia and further south is repeatedly emphasised in this collection.

“Some of the translations have been done especially for this book; others are revisions of existing versions, such as Schoff’s in the case of Periplus Mans Erythraei.[[8]] Occasionally, the use of earlier versions results in quaint English (e.g. ‘wine, beer and flesh’ [p. 71]; ‘the Nile resembles the letter N’ [p. 29, ‘the Greek letter nu’ would be more helpful]; and finally, ‘In Aithiopia there are many islands’ [p. 35] has lost the necessary qualification ‘in the river’). The translations are clearly aimed at a general readership: line numbers of the original editions have been omitted throughout; details are omitted concerning the exact length of longer documents from which excerpts have been taken—only about half of the sixth century contract for the sale of a Nubian slave girl (pp. 118-20) has been given, but this has not been indicated; abridgements, such as those of Strabo and Diodorus of Agatharchides, have been blended together to make a more readable text; and information concerning the source of each document has been relegated to endnotes. The result is a useful introductory text that students will find attractive; but they should be encouraged to discover for themselves the complex transmission of much of the material and the difficulties of its interpretation. Information of this kind might have been provided in the notes, rather than being omitted entirely.

“The book could have been improved in a number of ways: the illustrations that accompany the texts appear to have fallen victim to modern publishing technology, with the misleading result that Sidebotham’s photograph of the royal pyramids at Meroe, in particular, looks as though it was taken in moonlight (facing p. 11); the map (facing p. 3) is regrettably deficient as it fails (to take just one example) to identify the location of the river Atbara, which is mentioned in the text; I find the renumbering of notes (but not documents) within each of the four sections, without any indication of the change, rather confusing; the notes should possibly be fuller and more numerous; the introduction needs to refer more to the texts that follow; and the bibliography at the end of the book does not include references made in the notes.[[9]] These minor criticisms aside, this is a readable, and indeed fascinating collection of texts, that should prove to be extremely useful to students entering newly-devised courses (some of which are already running) on the cultural linkage between the ancient African civilizations of Meroë and Axum and the Mediterranean.”

— John Hilton, Scholia Reviews

“The ancient kingdoms of Kush and Axum were reflections of ancient Egypt to the north, but with the collapse of Egypt, Kush flourished and then gave way to Axum. … Burstein opens the volume with a brief survey of the two kingdoms; with introductions and important notes he then presents the ancient literary and epigraphical testimony for this region. … A brief bibliography and photographs aid this significant volume. … An important contribution to Black Africa.”